Although I have been learning about and doing evaluation for a long time, this week I’ve been searching for a topic to talk about.  A student recently asked me about the politics of evaluation–there is a lot that can be said on that topic, which I will save for another day.  Another student asked me about when to do an impact study and how to bound that study.  Certainly a good topic, too, though one that can wait for another post.  Something I read in another blog got me thinking about today’s post.  So, today I want to talk about gathering demographics.

Last week, I mentioned in my TIMELY TOPIC post about the AEA Guiding Principles. Those Principles along with the Program Evaluation Standards make significant contributions in assisting evaluators in making ethical decisions.  Evaluators make ethical decisions with every evaluation.  They are guided by these professional standards of conduct.  There are five Guiding Principles and five Evaluation Standards.  And although these are not proscriptive, they go along way to ensuring ethical evaluations.  That is a long introduction into gathering demographics.

The guiding principle, Integrity/Honesty states thatEvaluators display honesty and integrity in their own behavior, and attempt to ensure the honesty and integrity of the entire evaluation process.”  When we look at the entire evaluation process, as evaluators, we must strive constantly to maintain both personal and professional integrity in our decision making.  One decision we must make involves deciding what we need/want to know about our respondents.  As I’ve mentioned before, knowing what your sample looks like is important to reviewers, readers, and other stakeholders.  Yet, if we gather these data in a manner that is intrusive, are we being ethical?

Joe Heimlich, in a recent AEA365 post, says that asking demographic questions “…all carry with them ethical questions about use, need, confidentiality…”  He goes on to say that there are “…two major conditions shaping the decision to include – or to omit intentionally – questions on sexual or gender identity…”:

  1. When such data would further our understanding of the effect or the impact of a program, treatment, or event.
  2. When asking for such data would benefit the individual and/or their engagement in the evaluation process.

The first point relates to gender role issues–for example are gay men more like or more different from other gender categories?  And what gender categories did you include in your survey?  The second point relates to allowing an individual’s voice to be heard clearly and completely and have categories on our forms reflect their full participation in the evaluation.  For example, does marital status ask for domestic partnerships as well as traditional categories and are all those traditional categories necessary to hear your participants?

The next time you develop a questionnaire that includes demographic questions, take a second look at the wording–in an ethical manner.

Hello, readers.  This week I’m doing something different with this blog.  This week, and the third week in each month from now on, I’ll be posting a column called Timely Topic.  This will be a post on a topic that someone (that means you reader) has suggested.  A topic that has been buzzing around in conversations.  A topic that has relevance to evaluation.  This all came about because a colleague from another land grant institution is concerned about the dearth of evaluation skills among Extension colleagues.  (Although this comment makes me wonder to whom this colleague is talking, that question is content for another post, another day.)  So thinking about how to get core evaluation information out to more folks, I decided to devote one post a month to TIMELY TOPICS.  To day’s post is about “THINKING CAREFULLY”.

Recently, I’ve been asked to review a statistics text book for my department. This particular book uses a program that is available on everyone’s computer.  The text has some important points to make and today’s post reflects one of those points.  The point is thinking carefully about using statistics.

As an evaluator–if only the evaluator of your own programs–you must think critically about the “…context of the data, the source of the data, the method used in data collection, the conclusions reached, and the practical implications” (Triola, 2010, p. 18).  The author posits that to understand general methods of using sample data; make inferences about populations; understand sampling and surveys; and important measures of key characteristics of data, as well as the use of valid statistical methods, one must recognize the misuse of statistics.

I’m sure all of you have heard the quote, “Figures don’t lie; liars figure,” which is attributed to Mark Twain.  I’ve always heard the quote as “Statistics lie and liars use statistics.”  Statistics CAN lie.  Liars CAN use statistics.  That is where thinking carefully comes in–to determine if the statistical conclusions being presented are seriously flawed.

As evaluators, we have a responsibility (according to the AEA guiding principles) to conduct systematic, data-based inquiry; provide competent performance; display honesty and integrity…of the entire evaluation process; respect the security, dignity, and self-worth of all respondents; and consider the diversity of the general and public interests and values.  This demands that we think carefully about the reporting of data.  Triola cautions, “Do not use voluntary response sample data for making conclusions about a population.”  How often have you used data from individuals who decide themselves (self-selected) whether to participate in your survey or not?  THINK CAREFULLY about your sample.  These data cannot be generalized to all people like your respondents because of the bias that is introduced by self-selection.

Other examples of misuse of statistics include

  • using correlation for concluding causation;
  • reporting data that involves a sponsors product;
  • identifying respondents inappropriately;
  • reporting data that is affected with a desired response bias;
  • using small samples to draw conclusions for large groups;
  • implying that being precise is being accurate; and
  • reporting misleading or unclear percentages. (This cartoon was drawn by Ben Shabad.)

When reporting statistics gathered from your evaluation, THINK CAREFULLY.

Three weeks ago, I promised you a series of posts on related topics–Program planning, Evaluation implementation, monitoring and delivering, and Evaluation utilization.  This is the third one–using the findings of evaluation.

Michael Patton’s book  is my reference.

I’ll try to condense the 400+ page book down to 500+ words for today’s post.  Fortunately, I have the Reader’s Digest version as well (look for Chapter 23 [Utilization-Focused Evaluation] in the following citation: Stufflebeam, D. L., Madaus, G. F. Kellaghan, T. (2000). Evaluation Models: Viewpoints on educational and human services evaluation, 2ed. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers).  Patton’s chapter is a good summary–still it is 14 pages.

To start, it is important to understand exactly how the word “evaluation” is used in the context of utilization.  In the Stufflebeam, Madaus, & Kellaghan publication cited above, Patton (2000, p. 426) describes evaluation as, “the systematic collection of information about the activities, characteristics, and outcomes of programs to make judgments about the program, improve program effectiveness and/or inform decisions about future programming.  Utilization-focused evaluation (as opposed to program evaluation in general) is evaluation done for and with specific intended primary users for specific, intended uses (emphasis added). ”

There are four different types of use–instrumental, conceptual, persuasive, and process. The interest of potential stakeholders cannot be served well unless the stakeholder(s) whose interests are being served is made explicit.

To understand the types of use,  I will quote from a document titled, “Non-formal Educator Use of Evaluation Findings: Factors of Influence” by Sarah Baughman.

“Instrumental use occurs when decision makers use the findings to change or modify the program in some way (Fleisher & Christie, 2009; McCormick, 1997; Shulha & Cousins, 1997). The information gathered is used in a direct, concrete way or applied to a specific decision (McCormick, 1997).

Conceptual use occurs when the evaluation findings help the program staff or key stakeholders understand the program in a new way (Fleisher & Christie, 2009).

Persuasive use has also been called political use and is not always viewed as a positive type of use (McCormick, 1997). Examples of negative persuasive use include using evaluation results to justify or legitimize a decision that is already made or to prove to stakeholders or other administrative decision makers that the organization values accountability (Fleisher & Christie, 2009). It is sometimes considered a political use of findings with no intention to take the actual findings or the evaluation process seriously (Patton, 2008). Recently persuasive use has not been viewed as negatively as it once was.

Process use is the cognitive, behavioral, program, and organizational changes resulting, either directly or indirectly, from engagement in the evaluation process and learning to think evaluatively” (Patton, 2008, p. 109). Process use results not from the evaluation findings but from the evaluation activities or process.”

Before beginning the evaluation, the question, “Who is the primary intended user of the evaluation?” must not only be asked; it also must be answered.  What stakeholders need to be at the table? Those are the people who have a stake in the evaluation findings and those stakeholders may be different for each evaluation.  They are probably the primary intended users who will determine the evaluations use.

Citations mentioned in the Baughman quotation include:

  • Fleischer, D. N. & Christie, C. A. (2009). Evaluation use: Results from a survey of U.S. American Evaluation Association members. American Journal of Evaluation, 30(2), 158-175
  • McCormick, E. R. (1997). Factors influencing the use of evaluation results. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section A: The Humanities and Social Sciences, 58, 4187 (UMI 9815051).
  • Shula, L. M. & Cousins, J. B. (1997). Evaluation use: Theory, research and practice since 1986. Evaluation Practice, 18, 195-208.
  • Patton, M. Q. (2008). Utilization Focused Evaluation (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

As promised last week, this week is (briefly) on implementation, monitoring, and delivering evaluation.

Implementation. To implement an evaluation, one needs to have a plan, often called a protocol.  Typically, this is a step-by-step list of what you will do to present the program to your target audience.  In presenting your program to your target audience, you will also include a step-by-step list of how you will gather evaluation information (data).  What is important about the plan is that it be specific enough to be replicated by other interested parties.  When a plan is developed, there is typically a specific design behind each type of data to be collected.  For example, specific knowledge change is often measured by a pretest-posttest design; behavioral change is often measured with a repeated measures design.  Campbell and Stanley, in their classic book, Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for research, present a wealth of information about designs that is useful in evaluation (as well as research).

There are numerous designs which will help develop the plan for the implementation of the program AND the evaluation.

Monitoring. Simply put, monitoring is watching to see if what you said would happen, actually does.  Some people think of monitoring as .  Although monitoring may seem like being watched, it is being watched with a plan.  When I first finished my doctorate and became an evaluator, I conceptualized evaluation simply as process, progress, product. This helped stakeholders understand what evaluation was all about.  The monitoring part of evaluation was answered when I asked, “Are we making progress?  Are we where we said we would be at the time we said we would be there?”  This is really important because sometimes, as Jonny Morell points out in his book, evaluation don’t always  go as planned, even with the best monitoring system.

Delivering.  Delivering is the nuts and bolts of what you are going to do.  It addresses the who, what, where, when, how, and why of the implementation plan.  All of these questions interrelate–for example, if you do not identify who will conduct the evaluation, often the evaluation is “squeezed in” at the end of a program because it is required.

In addition to answering these questions when delivering the evaluation, one thinks about the models, or evaluation approaches.  Stufflebeam, Madaus, and Kellaghan  (in Evaluation models:  Viewpoints on educational and human services evaluation) discuss various approaches and state that the approach used by the evaluator will provide a framework for conducting an evaluation as well as  presenting and using the evaluation results.